Wednesday, 21 September 2011
Seanad Éireann Debate
Senator David Cullinane: I asked for this debate to focus on the situation in Waterford and the south east. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation was in the House last week to speak on innovation and job creation. During that discussion, Waterford and the south east featured heavily and, in fairness, the Minister gave some commitments that he would work with the enterprise agencies and the Department of Social Protection to ensure the workers who lost their jobs in TalkTalk recently were given the support they need and the broader issue of the lack of job creation in the south east, and the underinvestment in and underperformance of the local and regional economy, and the heavy hits the region has taken in recent years, would be rectified by the enterprise agencies being redirected to deal with the issues and problems facing the region.
I spoke to representatives from all parties and there is a lack of faith in any of the enterprise agencies to deliver for Waterford or for the region. There is a sense that the IDA wants to bring jobs to Ireland and is not bothered about where the jobs go. There is a perception that Waterford and the south east must do things for itself by establishing enterprise fora to examine what we can do in the region. Would the Government support such agencies if they were put in place? The regional assembly in the south east will look at some of these issues.
We cannot allow the situation to disappear from the agenda once the glare of publicity from the job losses is gone. We have seen that happen before when there were major job losses in Waterford Crystal and in GSK in Dungarvan. There was a high media profile and the politicians, Ministers and enterprise agencies had a lot to say. After the focus moves on, however, there is a fear nothing will happen and it is only when more jobs are lost that the focus returns.
Since the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation visited Waterford and met public representatives and gave clear commitments, what has been put in place and what action has been taken by Government? Have any specific proposals been put in place? Also, as per the commitment given, has the Department of Social Protection provided support to the workers of Talk Talk? If so, what types of supports have been put in place and is the employee representative forum of Talk Talk satisfied with what has been put in place by the Minister?
It is important that all public representatives from Waterford and the south east continue to raise the issue of the need for a university for the region. I spoke recently with representatives of the friends of the university of the south-east campaign, representatives of which the Leader will recall, protested outside this Parliament two years ago. A clear commitment was given at that time by all political parties, with the exception of the parties in government, that Waterford IT would be designated as a university.
Waterford city is the only gateway city without a university. The south-east region, with a population of 460,000, is the only region without a university. Some €300 million has been invested over the course of the past ten years in Waterford IT. In terms of the application made, many hurdles have been put in place. The Minister of State might recall the process put in place by the previous Government, namely, an expert group was established. The group was overseen by Dr. Port and subsequently published a report. That report stated that in comparison with universities in Ireland and abroad Waterford IT had the academic maturity to be a university and was performing as such in all but name. In my view, that report endorsed the need for a university for the south east.
We then had the Hunt report and clear commitments in that regard from Government. I have no doubt that the public representatives from the Labour Party and Fine Gael who are in government are committed to a university for the south east. Can the Minister of State tell us what the Government has done up to now to help Waterford and the south east and can he provide any further information in regard to Waterford IT’s application for university status?
The Minister, Deputy Bruton, understands the huge blow this is for Waterford, in particular for the workers concerned. The Minister was first informed of this decision on Wednesday, 7 September, the day it was to be announced. He was dismayed, as was the IDA, at the manner in which this was handled. In discussions with the CEO, local management and the representatives of head office in Waterford on Monday, 12 September the Minister continued to press for a longer period of operation to allow workers to adjust and also to give the IDA every chance to market the company effectively as a going concern. A plant with workers and skills is much more saleable while in operation than if closed.
The Minister had a series of meetings with public representatives and business. He met the workers, management and the city manager and business interests in Waterford. The clear message was that Waterford had not benefited from advances in the good times and has been of late badly affected in the more difficult times. On foot of that, the Minister instructed the relevant agencies to put together an action plan for Waterford and the south east region which will intensify how they are being supported and to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the region. This was reflected in the discussions the Minister had with local representatives. There was a sense that there needed to be a hard analysis of the reasons Waterford, given its strengths, has not been more successful. That is the task that the Minister has set the State development agencies to complete within one month.
When that analysis has been completed the Minister will look afresh at what action can be taken and whether there are further, deeper issues that need to be assessed in some other way. The Minister is determined to give Waterford the priority it rightly deserves. It is important to put on the record at this point that the Leader has since the date of the announcement by Talk Talk been raising this issue with the Minister. A casual view of unemployment numbers and the history of industrial performance in recent times indicates there are things that are wrong. The Minister is committed to having an effective action plan to address these. There are issues of a long-term and short-term nature which can be addressed in the near future. We need to take a hard look at how we can better support the enterprise sector in Waterford and to set out the actions we can take in the short and longer term.
The Minister has acknowledged the support of Cabinet colleagues. The Minister for Social Protection responded immediately and staff from her Department have spoken with staff of Talk Talk. The Minister for Education and Skills also responded immediately and the support of FÁS is in place. In addition, the Minister for Education and Skills indicated that work on the proposal for a technological university, which is to be explored as part of the programme for Government, is being accelerated. This issue has also been raised with Government on an ongoing basis by Senator Cummins. Clear criteria will be developed for that opportunity, which arose in discussions.
We need immediate action in the enterprise domain, but the Minister also recognises that this assessment of strengths and weaknesses will throw up issues that are relevant for other Departments. On foot of that, the Minister will bring to the attention of other Departments areas of action in respect of which they have the potential to assist. The Minister accepts that IDA Ireland has been meeting its target for 50% activity outside Dublin. However, for whatever reason, Waterford has not been doing as well as other regions outside the capital. The Minister acknowledges there is an issue as to why Waterford, despite its offerings and significant strengths, is not performing as well. That is why it is important to examine this matter to see what items we can correct in the short term to enhance that performance. It is our ambition to see Waterford doing better from overseas investment arid indigenous companies. We need to create an engine of indigenous growth in this country and it is disappointing to see that the indigenous sector’s contribution to our exports has not grown very significantly. We must re-examine weaknesses in that regard.
In this context, the Minister has directed the relevant agencies under his remit to report back to him before the end of this month with an audit of their activity in the region and proposals on what additional efforts can be made to reverse the disproportionately negative trend in employment. This feedback will contribute to and allow the Minister to oversee the preparation and implementation of a south-east employment action plan to investigate the causes of the problems facing Waterford city and its hinterland and will outline a list of actions to be taken by Government over the short, medium and long term to seek to address these.
Senator David Cullinane: I welcome the commitment to develop a south-east employment action plan. It is hoped that plan will be delivered across a number of Departments and will have the support of the Cabinet. While not wishing to be sceptical similar reports and plans put in place have not been followed through. It is hoped that the Minister of State can give a commitment that this plan will be.
On the university issue, the Minister of State referred to clear criteria having to be developed. The point I was making was that this had been a long, almost tortuous process, for Waterford IT. I fail to see what more in terms of criteria needs to be put in place. We have been hearing the word “criteria” for far too long. It is about time the Government published this criteria.
Deputy John Perry: The Government is only in office since March this year. The previous Government may have given a commitment on a proposed action plan but this is this Government’s first commitment on an action plan for the south-east region. The Minister has clearly indicated that the relevant Ministers and Departments must devise a plan within a month. I have no doubt that the Minister will meet all public representatives when that timeframe is up. We must await identification of the weaknesses and strengths of the region.
On the university issue, the Minister for Education and Skills is engaged in a review process. Agencies such as Science Foundation Ireland and Enterprise Ireland have continued to provide support to the many excellent research developments taking place in Waterford IT, which have enhanced its reputation. The process has been accelerated. The Government is conscious of the disproportionate lack of investment in Waterford from the State agencies, despite their successes. Indigenous Enterprise Ireland companies have never had higher export levels and the IDA is consistently attracting foreign direct investment. Our job will be to prioritise Waterford in every way we can. The action plan will be formulated in discussion with every parliamentarian in the region and the voluntary and private sector employees and staff. The entitlements of staff will be at the forefront of Government’s thinking.
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